PESHAWAR/ISLAMABAD - The head of the banned Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Hakimullah Mehsud was killed along with at least six others in a US drone hit on Friday near Miranshah, dealing a major blow to the militant network and apparently sabotaging the government efforts to initiate dialogue with the most deadly terrorist organisation of the country.
The most wanted militant in Pakistan with a $5 million US bounty on his head, Hakimullah was killed when a US pilotless drone fired four missiles at his vehicle and a compound in Danda Darpa Khel, a village about 5 km from Miranshah, headquarters of North Waziristan Agency, security sources and a senior Taliban commander said.
"We confirm with great sorrow that our esteemed leader was martyred in a drone attack," a senior Taliban commander told Reuters. The others killed in the attack included Hakimullah’s deputy Abdullah Behar, his bodyguard Tariq Mehsud, driver Abdullah Mehsud and an uncle, a security source said.
Mehsud was reportedly there to attend a gathering of 25 Taliban leaders to discuss the government's offer of talks, they said. His death would harm government efforts to hold peace talks. The Pakistani government did not officially confirm the killing of Mehsud, but it condemned the drone strike.
Federal Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan termed the US drone strike that killed the TTP commander an attempt to sabotage the government's plan to hold talks. "The attack has severely damaged expected talks with the Taliban. We condemn it. I am in touch with the prime minister to sort out ways to control the damage," said Nisar Friday night.
A three-member government team was ready to leave for Waziristan to negotiate with the TTP to strike a peace deal with Taliban. However, Nisar said, the team’s visit has been stopped from proceeding to Waziristan following the news of Hakimullah Mehsud's death in the drone attack. He told the media that he had discussed the situation with opposition leader Khursheed Shah, Fazlur Rehman, Munawar Hassan and others. "All of the leaders have condemned the attack," said Nisar.
The death of Mehsud, believed to be aged about 34, is also likely to prompt revenge attacks by the Taliban. His funeral will be held today (Saturday) in Miranshah, a Taliban commander said - an event likely to stir tensions further in the already volatile region. The nuclear-armed nation of 180 million people has been plagued by militant violence, including the homegrown Taliban insurgency that has cost tens of thousands of lives.
TTP is an umbrella organisation which is separate from but aligned with their Afghan namesakes who have staged attacks against armed forces and civilians in their fight to topple Pakistan's government. The elimination of TTP chief will seriously weaken the outfit. It is the second significant blow to the militant group in less than a month, following the capture of his former deputy Latif Mahsud by US forces in Afghanistan. Among the dead is Mehsud’s new deputy, Abdullah Behar, who had just taken over from Latif.
Hakimullah Mehsud was brought into the rank by his cousin Qari Hussain, who was the Taliban's top trainer for suicide bombers until he was killed in a drone strike. Mehsud took over the Pakistani Taliban in August 2009 after a drone strike killed the previous leader, his mentor Baitullah Mehsud.
The United States had offered $5 million for Mehsud's capture after he appeared in a farewell video with the Jordanian suicide bomber who killed seven CIA employees at a base in Afghanistan in 2009. Hakimullah has been reported dead several times before. But late on Friday, several intelligence, army and militant sources across the country confirmed he had been killed. His death was later confirmed by the TTP itself. Some security experts said Hakimullah’s death would be a major achievement for CIA’s program at a time when drones have come under renewed scrutiny over civilian casualties in both Pakistan and the United States.
Pakistan has long been opposing the CIA-operated drone attacks in the tribal region dubbing them as a violation if its territorial integrity. The drone strike comes just over a week after Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, met with President Obama in the White House and urged him to halt the drone strikes.
Mr Sharif has repeatedly stated his opposition to drone attacks, which are a hot-button political issue in Pakistan. Pakistani Taliban have also been demanding of the government to get the US drone strikes stopped before talks.
JUI-F chief Fazlur Rehman's spokesman Jan Achakzai while confirming the telephonic contact between the interior minister and his party chief, said: "This is a big blow to the peace process which is being initiated by the Pakistan government. We are examining different aspects of this incident."
Leader of Opposition in the National Assembly Khurshid Shah on Saturday also demanded halt to the drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal belt. "The Americans don't want peace in Pakistan. Pak Army and the incumbent government should devise some concrete policy on drone attacks. Pakistan will have to talk to US to seek explanation of its actions."
Hailing from Dehra village of Kotkai South Waziristan, Hakimullah belonged to the Ishangi, a sub-tribe of Mehsuds. In his 30s, Hakimullah Mehsud had taken TTP command of TTP in August 2009 after a drone strike killed the previous leader, his mentor, Baitullah Mehsud.